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Political concerns

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As the pitched battles being fought out by our political parties continue to rage, and with the possibility of the Prime Minister using his ridiculous constitutional powers (which, in fairness he had frowned on during the referendum exercise) to drag out the electoral process until well into 2011, many persons are beginning to wonder about the effects of such a protracted campaign on the administration of government.{{more}} Memories of the 2000/1 period are still fresh in many minds, when the political impasse in the country all but crippled the wheels of government. Whilst the situation may not be quite the same, from one week to another it is the same level of political haranguing, confrontations in Parliament, outside Parliament, even in the streets with the level of vitriolic comment in the media far from desirable.

Political parties are wont to use every little incident, every hint of controversy, to try and steal a march on each other and to try and win political support “on the cheap”. Our major protagonists are no different, and with the Opposition literally “smelling blood”, following the embarrassing defeat of the Government over the Referendum, we can expect to witness more and more demonstrations, pickets etc. on all sorts of issues. The latest Opposition-fuelled manifestations now revolve around disciplinary action being taken by the Public Service Commission against a young public servant who was quite vocal in her opposition to the proposed 2009 Constitution and who, in the process, made very scathing public remarks against both the Government and the Prime Minister.

In the present climate the issue has quickly been characterised as one where the fundamental right to freedom of speech is being infringed. In fact this cherished freedom has now become the most debated issue of the day. In a context where the airwaves are wide open, and callers are allowed wiily-nilly, to “say wey dey like”, sometimes encouraged by talk-show hosts, any attempt to bring sanity to the “drag-down” process is quickly condemned as a restriction of the freedom of speech. A spate of libel cases, mostly emanating from the Prime Minister has been thrown into the law-courts. This has been branded as an attempt to muzzle criticism. The Court it is, which will be the final arbiter, but these acts help to ratchet up the political temperature even further.

Incidentally, one of these cases revolves around allegations of improper funding of the governing Unity Labour Party. It is easy to get lost in the partisan arguments around this and lose sight of the far more important, wider political consideration. The crux of the matter, in my humble opinion, lies with the question of the funding of political campaigns. It was an issue that formed part of the constitutional reform debate, but it was quickly lost in the trivial partisan issues that swamped the debate. Lo and behold! Both political parties got embroiled in murky allegations of external funding of their campaigns, and the ball is still rolling.

Gone is the innocence of the past where political campaigns were centred around public meetings with supporters listening intently to the words of their leaders. The public meeting has been replaced by the “bashment” with loud music, not sound policies, the instrument of persuasion. Campaigns now cost millions, which can no longer be raised by traditional fund-raising efforts. Where is this money coming from? Who is providing it, and for what purpose?

Those issues were addressed last week by the prominent regional political scientist, Peter Wickham, famous for his on-the-spot political polling and in-depth analyses of regional elections. Delivering a lunchtime lecture at the Headquarters of the Democratic Labour Party in Barbados last Friday, he raised a number of concerns which ought to cause us to sit up and take notice. Chief among these were his concerns about the increase and level of funding of political campaigns, the growing links between political parties and the private sector and the impact of these developments on democracy in our region.

Wickham made reference to recent elections in St. Kitts/Nevis and Dominica where spending “had grown out of proportion and set standards for future elections”. But he could well have been referring to not-so-recent elections in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda or almost any other CARICOM nation. The more we accept these worrying trends, the analyst told his audience, the more we help to push our parties “into bed” with corporate (and even unsavoury) elements. One Jamaican political figure recently caused a storm with a warning of a possible takeover of one or more of our countries by big drug dealers. Worrying about these trends, Wickham said:

“The bar is now so high that in order to play the game of politics in any Caribbean country, you have to come to the table with a whole lot of money… it forces you into bed with these private sector interests and forces persons into very uncomfortable situations.”

Yet, by and large, we don’t care, as long as our party gets into power. We even brag about the razmatazz, how it is superior to the “other one” which “can’t touch us”. Little do we realise what a heavy price which we and our country must pay. The Government so funded is held to ransom, the funders must get more than their pound of flesh. Even as we make the accusations back and forth, is it not appropriate for us to begin to consider ways to put back these genies in their bottles. Wickham proposes restrictions/bans on political advertising, doing away with the free T-shirts, caps etc. But what do you think? Why not use your call on the radio to discuss matters which affect us all and not just partisan interests?

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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